Drowned

By Patrick J. Murphy

The wind came in off the plains to the town of Milan, Ohio and curled around the clapboard house of Thomas Alva Edison. It reached the walls and climbed to the eves outside the attic window. When it howled, the bed seemed to move, as if it were carrying the boy away.

“Pitt.” His older brother slept against the other sloping wall, a long shape sprawled beneath a wool blanket, hardly a comfort, barely a presence.

“Go to sleep.”

Al felt the others beneath him, his parents and sisters safe below, while he swung from side to side with every gust. There were forces seeking them out. Often, he saw a light in the corner, where no light could be. There were the rough wooden planks angling down, the bare floor and the opposite wall joining in a tight pyramid of darkness. His brother was usually asleep or gone drinking and wouldn’t have understood in any case, being a large lump of a man, smiling and rubbing at his face, hardly recognizing the strangeness of the wind. Why was that? Was it the difference in their ages?

“Something’s going on,” Al would say, but Pitt’s attention wandered.

“Yeah?”

No one would listen. Even in the midst of his family, he was alone. He imagined everyone around him gradually growing harder and more unpleasant, like brass turning dull, then green.

The light appeared. At first, just a spark, a faint ember gleaming red. It seemed pointed, like a Christmas star, but, as it grew, its shape changed. Curves of flame tried to push out from the center, like a man struggling beneath a blanket. Al wanted to call out, but the breath had left his lungs. They were going to die, all of them, and their souls would be carried off.

The light flamed. It reared, filling the corner. The roof above it should be smoking, the wood charring, then catching, but the fire seemed without heat. If anything, the room grew colder.

Al sat up. “What do you want?”

“Go to sleep,” Pitt said again.

The light approached. It floated toward his bed, shifting, never twice what it had been. It hovered above him and formed a face. When it spoke his name, Al screamed.

The sound was high and piercing, surprising even himself. He was amazed he could make such a noise. It seemed beyond his control, an activity of his lungs and throat, and he wondered when it would stop.

Pitt was by the bed, shaking him. “Come on.” His voice was urgent. He was concerned, now. “Shut up, will you?”

On the steps below, there were ponderous footsteps and the creaking of wood.

“Now, you’ve done it.”

The light was gone. There had been danger. Really. They had once again narrowly escaped. Why was he the only one who knew?

Pitt leaped across the floor back into bed and pulled his covers up as their mother walked in.

“What is it?” She was a heavy woman. The weight of her cheeks weighted the corners of her mouth. She had a large, dark mole on the left side of her face from which a few hairs grew. She wore a shapeless, white flannel gown with the sleeves rolled up over her forearms.

“It wasn’t me,” Pitt said. “I didn’t do a thing.”

Al watched his mother as she walked nearer. She looked weary and unhappy and he knew there was no way to explain. “I saw something.”

With one hand, she pressed him back into bed. “I know. I know.”

She didn’t believe him. She never did. He was the strange one, the troubled boy. Nothing he said ever made any difference.

“Go to sleep.” She smoothed his hair back with thick fingers and patted him on the leg.

“You crazy bastard,” Pitt said, after she’d gone. “What the hell did you want to go and do that for?”

Al lay silent, staring at the corner.

The next morning he dressed and ran downstairs. Again, the objects around him had shifted. He wasn’t sure when it had last happened, but he vaguely remembered noticing before that things weren’t as they had been. Nothing stayed put for long. Nothing could be depended on. It would all vanish in a second, carried off somewhere unimaginable.

This time, the house seemed brighter, the edges of the chairs and cabinets more clearly defined. The stove, black and standing on four curved feet, had never appeared so large and massive.

His father sat at the table. He was a tall man with a full beard rising from his neck across his chin and cheeks, but the lack of any mustache gave him an unbalanced look. He seemed permanently surprised, inordinately pleased, a bit silly. He glanced up from his plate, but said nothing.

Al knew his father’s silence was deliberate. “I’m sorry, sir.”

His father waved him to his chair. “Sit down. Sit.”

Breakfast went quickly. Al drank the glass of milk before him, ate the eggs and the bread his mother had warmed above the stove. He didn’t want to seem in a hurry, no desire dare be betrayed, but he was impatient to get outside. He finished, then sat with his hands folded in his lap until his father noticed.

“You can be excused.” There was only a trace of irritation remaining in his voice.

The house was built on a hill overlooking the canal. A stretch of grass sloped down to the fence, then there was a steeper drop to flat banks lined with warehouses, blacksmith shops, stables, a flour mill, a tannery with its odorous hides stretched on racks, and finally his father’s sawmill. The rough logs lay in one huge pile to the side, waiting to be cut. The smooth pale finished planks were under a tarp in stacks and waiting for shipment. Al loved the business, the shouting of the sailors, the movement of horses and wagons, but it was the water that fascinated him.

The canal was heavily traveled. Barges hauled produce and timber and the possessions of those pioneers heading West. Al stood on the bank and watched the horses being led and pushed across the narrow, sagging wooden gangplanks, the drab sacks and pitiful armloads being thrown into Conestogas and lorries, drays and buckboards. The Gold Rush was on. Everyone expected to get rich. Al imagined stowing away among the luggage, crawling inside one of the piles of bedding, appearing only days later when the journey West was well begun. Who would ever miss him? Only the knowledge that he would be returned held him back.

He walked along the canal past the piers and stared into the water, wondering how deep it might be. He followed it until the rocks shelving the sides disappeared and the banks grew less defined. There were eddies, then, and shallow pools as the water broadened. Cattails grew in clusters. Blackbirds flew up in clouds as he appeared.

He wanted to call Joey Lockwood, his only friend. They had a code, a secret set of syllables shouted outside one another’s house, but knew that soon he’d have to turn back. It was nearly time for his morning lessons. He stared into the blackness of the still water and saw himself far below, past the struggle for air, in the peaceful drift of death.

“Alva!”

His mother stood, a wide, black shape on the crest of the hill. She wore a black lace cap. Three of her children had died years ago and since then her only public color was black. “Respect, for their dear souls,” she had said. “It’s the least I can do.”

“Alva!”

He hated his lessons. Name the books of the Bible in order. Recite the Twenty-third Psalm. The Hundredth. The Hundredth and Twenty-third. Read First and Second Kings. What happened? Why was David special? Who did David prefigure? What difference did it make?

All of it seemed so unnecessary. So abstract. Where did the light in the corner of the room figure in? Everything seemed calculated and explained, nearly cozy, until he remembered that.

His mother stood and waved. He climbed the hill slowly and followed her dark shape inside. They went to the sewing room. There were white curtains on the windows there, blurring the light, obscuring the small, square panes of glass. A flat desk stood against one wall and above it a portrait of his mother’s father, a Presbyterian minister. He, too, was always dressed in black.

His mother sat in her chair. It was wide and covered in green velvet. Polished arms curved down and grew into legs ending in the talons of a bird holding a crystal ball. When the sun was right, the crystal would catch fire, distracting him. What causes that? he wondered.

“What book would you like to study?” They had just finished Lamentations.

“Jonah.” His answer was quick. The story of the man who didn’t particularly like God, who ran away from Him when given a chance, a man who, even when forced to do God’s will, never changed his ideas, never gave an inch. Of all the books in the Bible, Jonah was the only one he found understandable. The man sitting on the hill, grumpy, waiting for Nineveh to burn. He imagined himself there, dressed in a robe, urging on the flames and the thunder.

They began the book of Job. He was pretty sure he’d read it before. God takes away everything for no good reason and then gives it all back. Job refuses to deny his god and his family is restored. Of course, it wasn’t the same family. The dead sons were permanently dead and the new sons had little to do with the old, but at least God had made his point.

“Do we have to?”

Outside, a steam whistle blew and he knew that a barge or a ship was nearing the pier. There would be ropes flying through the air, people scurrying and cursing and heading out to new and finer lives.

He was required to read aloud. When he needed help with a word, his mother leaned over and pronounced it for him, saying it two or three times and telling him what it meant.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re not so smart,” she said now and then. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

He thought he’d rather be smart, like Pitt, who was a lost soul, happily consigned with his father to hell and free from study and care. At night, Pitt and Father went drinking, sauntering off full of fun to town, returning only late. Al had lain awake in bed, listening to the clumsy steps of his brother climbing the stairs, the muffled laughter as Pitt struggled with the laces of his shoes.

“What have you been doing?” he asked constantly.

“Go to sleep, you little weasel,” was the only answer he ever received.

Fun on a scale too large to talk about. Al tried to imagine such a thing, but couldn’t. When would it ever be his turn? He pictured the three of them, drinking and doing whatever it was they did and keeping so closely secret.

“Why torture the child?” his father had asked once about Al’s lessons.

“It isn’t torture.” His mother’s voice was harsh and sharp, beyond contradiction. “It’s education. He’s going to be a better man than you. He’s going to amount to something.”

His father stood, his weight on one foot, scratching the beard on one cheek. “I just feel sorry for the tyke.” Then he had gone, leaving his youngest son to the mercy of the woman who he himself seemed to steer well clear of.

Job was busy scraping his scabs with a rock and lying in a pile of garbage. Al stopped reading and made a disgusted sound.

“It’s Scripture. Life’s not always pleasant.”

The sun moved across the carpet, drawing closer to the crystal held in the talons of the bird. He watched it, nearly in a trance.

At last it was over and the afternoon was his. He burst from the house and ran down the slope of the hill to the canal and along its banks until it ended in a great confusion of barges and cargo stored along the pier and then up the flagstone steps to town.

He stopped in front of the blacksmith’s shop, a raw wooden barn with a forge on one side and horses waiting to be shod on the other. Near the wide, open door someone had nailed a poster with a picture of a steam locomotive rounding a turn across the top and beneath that an announcement that the railroad was doing construction work in Sandusky. Laborers were needed. A boss grader sought. The pay was high. But what really attracted Al’s attention was the small blueprint below. It showed the internal workings of the steam engine, the coupling rods, the engine beam, the boiler and condensers and valves, the mighty pistons. A 2-6-0 wheel arrangement. He couldn’t quite figure out how it all really worked, but felt the excitement build as he tried to understand. Now, that was something, he thought and imagined the harnessed power, the thunder of the steam. He felt the pressure and the sudden release as the pistons slammed down. At the bottom, in tiny print, were the words “Baltimore and Ohio R.R.”

His friend, Joey Lockwood, a dark-haired, cautious boy, usually could be found in his father’s store. Joey’s father owned the Mercantile, a place much more interesting than the sawmill. On the shelves along the right, there were dry goods. Along the left were stacked the groceries, the eight‑pound sacks of Quaker’s Oats, the tobacco, and the sundries. The patent medicines, such as Drake’s Plantation Bitters and Radway’s Ready Relief, were rowed just beneath the W.A. Burpee chromolithograph. There was a main counter with its credit book and scales. There was the 5 and 10 cent counter stocked with crochet hooks, wash basins, baby bibs, watch keys and harmonicas. And scattered throughout the store were the special displays, Merrick’s Six Cord Soft Finish Spool Cotton shaped like a giant rotating cylinder, showing gauges and colors, an S-shaped glass case filled with cutlery and glassware, a Rit dye rack, a cosmetic stand. And at the rear of the store were the cans of kerosene, bottles of whiskey, and barrels of meat.

There were dresses and strange items of feminine clothing discreetly placed to one side and shoes and boots and hats near the front. Pocket knives and pipes and cigars were stored in a case behind glass and drawn out for the customer with reverence.

“Here,” Joey said once and took out from one of the cases a small brass telescope. “Hold it up to your eye and pull this thing back.” He showed him how to operate it. “Look down the street.”

At first, there was nothing, a blur, white light confused and indistinct, then the lines appeared. He pulled more carefully, adjusting it finely, and when it was sharp and clear had no idea what it was. He looked away and realized the brown he had seen filling the lens was only part of a distant post, then looked again, amazed. “How does it work?”

Joey shrugged. “I got to put it back, now.”

Al handed it over reluctantly. “You’ll let me use it again.” It was more an order than a request.

Joey seemed nervous. His thin face seemed pinched beneath his shaggy, black hair. “Sure. When my father lets me.”

Day after day he made Joey hand him the telescope, and then one afternoon it was simply gone, its spot on the shelf behind the glass occupied by a tooled, red leather pouch.

“Where is it? What did you do with it?”

Joey seemed helpless. “I don’t know. It was there this morning.”

Al imagined someone coming in and buying it, handing out money and taking it away. It wasn’t fair. He kicked the case with his boots and hit the glass with both fists. When cracks appeared, he ran for the door. “Don’t you tell! Don’t you dare!”

Now, the afternoon stretched out in front of them. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.”

As if by agreement, they wandered down to the canal and walked along the bank. They were silent. Thin clouds slid past the sun. A barge, nearly hidden beneath the mountains of coal it carried, moved slowly toward them.

“Let’s go swimming.”

Joey looked up at the sky. “It’s not really very warm.”

“Come on.” The more Al thought about it, the better the idea seemed.

There was a pond a mile away, a widening of the canal. It was private, screened by a line of trees. “Race you.”

Joey was thin, but fast. Someday, Al thought, struggling to keep up. One of these days. He watched Joey pull ahead.

He needed a rest by the time they arrived. His lungs labored. His legs trembled. Joey was already at the pond, skimming rocks across its surface and hardly seemed winded.

“Don’t know why you bother,” Joey said, smiling. “You never win. You never even come close.”

“This time,” was all Al had breath to say.

The water was frosted by the breeze. Small ripples washed against the dirt shore. Cattails grew at the edges. They walked to the trees. There was one tree that had been burned, blasted by lightning. They took off their clothes and jammed them into its hollow center, then ran to the water. Al crashed below the surface and rose in a flurry of arms and fists. Joey waited and dove cleanly, smoothly down.

He’s such an idiot, Al thought. When Joey’s head appeared, he splashed him.

“Hey!” Joey flailed, churning the water, making it boil. They were laughing, screaming. Then Joey dove again, escaping.

Al waited, rotating quickly. There was no telling where Joey would appear. He might burst up behind him or to the side. Al’s hands were cupped and ready. Come on, he thought.

The breeze died and the water cleared and Al waited, not believing at first, not seeing how it could possibly happen. The pond appeared suddenly much deeper and darker.

“Joey! Hey. Joey!” A distant, thin column of smoke rose in the distance.

The water felt strange, deadly, as if something it carried were clinging to his skin. He climbed back to the shore and stood shivering. The sun was obscured and without warmth. He felt a presence, a dark movement around him. The fire in the corner. Jonah, the man who ran. Job, the man who stayed. And all the sons and daughters and cattle and sheep, slaughtered without regard. And nothing could be done.

Joey was down there, somewhere, he thought, and tried to imagine it. The cool water, green near the surface, but darker below. The languid arms and legs, moving at the current’s direction. He wondered if the fish were startled, bemused at so strange a creature. The smaller fry would explore, edging into the crevices, probing the nose and the ears.

Al stared across the still surface and while he waited it felt as if something settled inside him, a weight passively resting. A question he hadn’t known existed seemed answered, somehow. Joey, he thought.

He walked home and waited and was called into the kitchen for supper. Green beans sat in a bowl next to the potatoes. Bread waited on a board. A glass of milk stood tall before his plate. His father and his brother talked about the business and the train tracks being laid from Sandusky to Columbus. His mother sat in black in her chair and watched him eat.

“May I be excused, now?” he asked after only a few moments.

“Are you feeling okay?” His mother leaned forward and examined his face.

“I’m just not very hungry.” Something pressed on his heart and stomach. The water, he thought, would be turning dark and cold. In the distance, the whistle of the barge sounded mournfully. He rose from the table and climbed the stairs to his room in the attic. He undressed, avoiding the corner where the flames had appeared, not daring now even to look.

His mother came up shortly, her steps heavy and ponderous. “You’re sick.”

He shook his head.

She felt his skin. “I just wish you weren’t so scrawny.”

They all were going to die. Every single one of them. The presence was so close around. Nothing could be done.

“Did you say your prayers?”

“Of course,” he lied, vowing never to say his prayers again, that if he were forced to mumble the words aloud he would be saying something else inside, where it counted. He would be one boy to his mother, another to his God. It felt as if his life had been decided.

She closed the door and left. The last light hung in the sky, seeming never to fade. He thought about Joey, away from the sun, in the blackening pool. He wondered what it would be like, no longer needing to breathe, or how the stars would appear from below, if every passing wave would make them dance.

He wasn’t the least bit sleepy and wondered now and then why he was already in his bed. He could be sitting by the fire in the family room, or in the kitchen with his mother. Pitt and his father were probably already gone, eager to be on their own, away from the women and the slow, sickly boy. Well, that was okay. It wasn’t so bad beneath the blankets, rather quiet and calm and the flames weren’t around and even the presence seemed slightly lifted.

It was fully dark when he heard the sounds below. Boots crashed against the wooden floor. The harsh barking of men in a hurry carried up the stairs. He recognized his father’s voice.

They burst into the room, his father in the lead. There were seven or eight of them, in coats, carrying lanterns. Al recognized Mr. Lockwood and Mr. Kentner from the stable.

“They say you were playing with Joey, today,” his father said quickly. “Were you?”

Al looked at the men filling the room, at the lantern light dancing across the beams. He glanced into the corner.

“Well, were you?”

He nodded.

“Goddamn it, boy! Where is he?”

“He’s in the pond, a mile down the levee.” Al cleared his throat. The words sounded so high and tiny, a faint piping, the least of voices.

His father stopped. His face changed. “In the pond?”

“He went under and I waited and I waited but he never came up and then I knew he was drowned.”

Mr. Lockwood dropped the hat he’d held in his hand, but didn’t bother picking it up. Several of the others moved to the door, then ran down the steps. Al heard feet against the wood and the front door slamming.

“And you didn’t tell anybody?” his father asked. “You didn’t bother to go for help?”

What was the sense? Al thought. What purpose would it serve? No words came to his lips. He was mute, an object under glass, a curiosity stored upon a shelf.

Al heard his father down below. “What the hell’s wrong with that boy?”

“He’s out of his head,” someone else said. The words were clear, but Al couldn’t tell who was speaking. There was a crash, as something was dropped or thrown, then the silence returned.

They thought he was crazy, Al told himself. He knew they considered him slow. And maybe he was all those things and more. How could he tell for sure? He wasn’t as the others were. They seemed happier. They understood each other. They smiled and recognized themselves in each other’s greeting. It was a club he couldn’t join. He pictured Joey drifting alone in the dark at the bottom of the pond. It was that kind of world, he thought. That was the way it worked.

 

Patrick J. Murphy is widely published in the short story form. Stories of his have appeared, among other places, in The New Orleans Review, The Cream City Review, Confrontation, Fiction, Other Voices, The Sycamore Review, and twice each to The Tampa Review, The New England Review, and to Buffalo Spree Magazine. One of Patrick’s stories has appeared in the anthology “100% Pure Florida Fiction” published by The University Press of Florida, and a collection of his was published by White Pine Press. Patrick has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, the O’Henry Prize Stories, the New Stories from the South, and the Best American Short Stories collections. He is a member of The Author’s Guild and PEN Center West and is listed in the Poets and Writers Directory.

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